The Johnstons from Georgia are known to be the world’s largest family with achondroplasia dwarfism. Their lives have been chronicled in the reality television series “7 Little Johnstons” since it premiered on 6 January 2015. Amber Johnston raised her adopted children along with her biological ones to become independent, confident, and able to adapt to a world that was challenging for people with short stature. Dwarfism usually comes with health complications, but what worried her most had nothing to do with her genetic condition – it was the possibility of having skin cancer.
- 1 How did “7 Little Johnstons” come about?
- 2 Get to know the “real-life seven dwarfs”
- 3 Amber’s parenting style
- 4 On marriage, rumors of divorce
- 5 Does Amber have skin cancer?
How did “7 Little Johnstons” come about?
Amber Johnston’s first foray into television was in 2011, when her family made a guest appearance in the American talk show “Anderson”, hosted by the broadcast journalist Anderson Cooper. As the show was said to be focused on featuring extraordinary families, or people with interesting stories, they needed not to look any further, when Amber expressed an interest via email for her family to be cast in the show, saying ‘I have been inspired to share our story of being the true seven dwarfs.’
Each member of her family has achondroplasia, which meant ‘without cartilage formation.’ It is characterized by disproportionate short stature, limited range of motion, bowing of legs, and an unusually large head size (macrocephaly), but with at least average intelligence.
Having a short stature made them the subject of ridicule, discrimination, and name-calling. Being called ‘midget’ was highly offensive to them, but ‘dwarf’ or a ‘little person’ was acceptable, although they preferred to be called by their names instead of a label. Some people assumed that they were incapable of doing things that an average-sized person could do. Amber wanted it to be known that they could accomplish what any other person could, but they just had to be more creative and resourceful in going about it. They wanted social acceptance, to be seen as human beings and not as objects to be stared at.
Educating the public about people with their condition had been their goal as well, when they agreed to do the reality TV series, “7 Little Johnstons.” They generated so much interest by appearing in the talk show, that the production company LMNO Cable Group invited them to star in their own show, an opportunity that they couldn’t resist. The series was aired on the cable channel TLC owned by Warner Bros. Discovery.
Get to know the “real-life seven dwarfs”
Trent and Amber
Amber Stormer was still in high school when she first met Trent Johnston, at one of the get-togethers arranged by the non-profit organization Little People of America (LPA), which provides resources, information and support to those with dwarfism and their families. Trent said, ‘I saw a gorgeous blonde-haired, blue-eyed, 16-year-old girl,’ and the attraction was mutual, as Amber said, ‘I saw a very attractive young man, who turned out to have a funny personality.’ Soon they were in a long-distance relationship, and had to wait until she matriculated from high school before she could move to Georgia and be with him. They were married in November 1998 at his church in Ellenwood.
Jonah and Elizabeth
Five months after their wedding, she was pregnant with their first child, Jonah, and they had quite a scare when he wasn’t breathing when born. The doctor revived him, and placed him on a ventilator. After six weeks of staying at the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU), they brought him home although he was still in and out of hospital during his first year, having been born prematurely, and needing surgeries because of his dwarfism. Her second pregnancy was difficult, not to mention painful, as her hips were repeatedly dislocated. She was only four feet tall but had become so big that her middle measured 51 inches. Their second child, Elizabeth, was born in December 2001, with the same genetic condition.
Anna from Russia
Because of the medical risks to Amber if she were to conceive again, she had her tubes ligated after her cesarean section. The couple had always wanted a big family, so the only option left for them was adoption. It was said that children with dwarfism in other countries were most likely abandoned, and only a few would be willing to adopt them. However, Amber and Trent wanted them, and this earned them the nickname the “Brad and Angelina of Little People,” from their friends.
Amber was a district director of the LPA at the time when the Shepherd’s Crook adoption ministry reached out to them via email in March 2004, in search of a home for a Russian child with achondroplasia dwarfism. The more they knew about the 14-year-old orphan, the more they believed that she was meant to be their daughter. They went all the way to Siberia in June 2005 to meet Anna, and bring her to their home.
Alex from South Korea
By December 2005, the couple was hoping to adopt another boy to complete their family, especially since their eldest wanted a brother. It seemed fortuitous then, that an agency in Colorado called them to ask if they knew of anyone willing to adopt a nine-year-old South Korean boy with achondroplasia. This time, the adoption process was more difficult as they lacked the funds to pay the fees in full as was required. However, out of the goodness of their hearts, a couple wrote a check for the full amount that was needed. The Johnston family welcomed Alex into their home in May 2006, then later repaid the couple when they received an adoption aid grant from Show Hope.
Emma from China
Alex’s looks were different from the rest of the family, so Amber and Trent believed it was best for the child to have a sibling who was not only closer to his age, but also shared similar physical features. In October 2009, Amber learned that in an orphanage in Baoding, China, there was a Chinese girl who was only months older than Alex and had achondroplasia, and they couldn’t wait to make her part of their family. After a year, they flew to China and finally met their nine-year-old daughter, Emma, and brought her home to meet her siblings.
Amber’s parenting style
Amber and her husband felt very blessed to have a family of seven, and said that they couldn’t have asked for anything more. Raising five kids was not easy, more so in front of the camera, as there were people nitpicking on every little thing that was happening in their household. They sometimes found Amber to be controlling, overbearing, and unfair in how she treated her children. She wanted the viewers to keep in mind that several hours of footage were edited to make a storyline to fit an episode that was less than an hour-long, so they were not seeing the entire picture.
There were no perfect parents and no perfect children, but some viewers could not help but criticize Amber’s parenting style. She grew up as the only one who had achondroplasia in her family, but her parents were very supportive and made sure that they brought her up in the same way as her average-sized siblings. Not being treated any differently gave her confidence, and taught her to become self-reliant, and Amber wanted to do the same thing for her kids.
Adjusting to the world
Most individuals with dwarfism had physical limitations due to their short stature and other deformities, so their homes had to be modified to make things comfortable and convenient for them. The LPA even set guidelines or offered ideas on their website, that would fit various needs and budgets. Homes were built for average-sized persons, so imagine the difficulties of a little person in doing things as simple as reaching a light switch, getting clothes from a closet, and preparing or cooking food in the kitchen.
Making things more accessible such as lowering countertops, sinks, and light switches to a comfortable height were viewed by Amber and her husband as a form of coddling the kids, and wouldn’t be beneficial to them in the long run. Trent had said, ‘We raise our kids to live in the world, not to live at home…in the world around us – when you walk out there…it’s not built for you.’ It was important for them that their kids learned how to adapt well to their surroundings, and figure things out on their own when faced with obstacles. Their size shouldn’t get in the way of achieving their goals, big or small.
Kids’ moving out
Amber’s goal of making her children self-reliant growing up was in preparation for the time when they became adults, and moved out of the house. As the eldest turned 21, Amber and Trent issued an ultimatum in that Jonah had three months to make the necessary arrangements in finding a new place; they considered it ample time to save money for that. Jonah’s parents tried to motivate him to become more responsible and handle his finances well, since he’d put college on hold and wanted to work. They’d had a lot of discussions about this in the past but it seemed that Jonah was quite stubborn.
Elizabeth was the first one to move out; she was a 19-year-old college student at a nursing school at that time, but had saved money from working hard to afford her new place. She and her boyfriend Brice made plans for him to move in with her, after being in a relationship for three years, but her parents balked at that, saying that they were still old-fashioned, and wanted them to marry first before living together. The young couple felt it was time to take things to the next level, and it didn’t help that they only saw each other on weekends, as he was also busy with work.
We survived the 1st week of school! pic.twitter.com/JJYrXPUzuJ
— 7 little Johnstons (@team7lj) August 22, 2020
With Anna, Amber was reluctant to give her permission to leave the house, since she was still a full-time student and only had a part-time job. Anna didn’t understand why her parents couldn’t be as excited for her as they were with Elizabeth. Her online business was doing well, but her parents wanted more financial stability for her before she started living on her own. They said that their home should not be considered as the kids’ fallback, as once they moved out, that was it. However, they would help in case of emergencies or if they had medical problems. She eventually moved out, and experienced adulthood as she became independent.
Some viewers didn’t agree with how the parents dealt with their kids, as they found it harsh, but Amber said that it was just tough love.
Filming was a family job
The family didn’t have a hard time adjusting to having cameras follow them around as they went about their day, but some were wondering if it had a negative impact on the kids. Amber said that she and Trent taught the kids to treat it as a job, as a family business, so they all had to work together. If one no longer wanted to be part of it, then it was not going to work; this was their mindset when they started filming. They remained true to themselves so they didn’t worry whether they were being filmed or not.
Admittedly, they were paid for it, and they gained a lot of attention, but as a parent, she didn’t let it change who they were at their core. Amber said, ‘Life still has to be everyday normal life for the kids.’ Trent jokingly said, ‘Our heads are already big enough. We don’t need them any bigger.’ He also reminded them that being different meant that people, both adults and kids, would stare at them and remember them, so they should present themselves in a way that would make them leave a positive impression. As they represented the community of dwarfs, it was important that they consider the reality TV show as an opportunity to educate people even if viewers considered it as a form of entertainment.
On marriage, rumors of divorce
Like any other couple, Amber and Trent had their ups and downs, but in season five which aired in the latter part of 2018, their loyal fan base began to worry that the tension between the two would culminate in a divorce. She said that the family dynamics had changed quite a bit, living with five teenagers at home, and it put a strain on their relationship. However, Amber said there was no reason to feel anxious about it, as she and Trent had already been through a lot in their two-decade-long marriage, and they overcame challenges as a team. She said, ‘We know that a relationship, parenting and marriage are a constant work in progress. With both of us feeling that, and knowing that we don’t give up.’
Aside from resolving issues that crop up, they also made efforts in spicing up their marriage, which included pole dancing, constructing a ‘love shack’ on their property, and consulting with an intimacy coach. They celebrated their 23rd wedding anniversary in November 2021.
Does Amber have skin cancer?
Amber’s weight loss was considered drastic by some, thinking that she underwent bariatric surgery, although there were also those who were worried that she was sick. However, she cleared things up, and said that she lost considerable weight, at least 50 pounds, by following a healthier lifestyle with proper diet and exercise. She never had weight issues until she started taking steroids for nearly two years, to counter her back injury. The decision to shed those extra pounds was actually caused by having a hard time keeping up with her family during one of their hiking trips.
Just when the viewers thought that everything was well with Amber, she opened up about seeing a dermatologist regarding the moles on her back, as Trent noticed that they had become bigger and wanted them checked. A biopsy was performed – although the doctor didn’t outright say that it was cancerous, he was concerned that it was changing and growing. He told her that they had to remove as much or as many they could, so that no further treatment would be required. She was reluctant to have the procedure done at that time, using the kids as an excuse and making it seem like there would be chaos in their house without her.
Naturally, Trent couldn’t understand why she couldn’t prioritize her health. He said that if it happened to him or one of the kids, Amber would put everything on hold and immediately set an appointment with the doctor. He didn’t want her to put it off, as he was worried that her condition could worsen, and would require a more complicated or lengthy treatment. He said that it would be best to deal with it sooner than later, so that there would be no regrets. She finally admitted to being scared of what the outcome would be, if it was something that could be treated or not. Her February 2021 Instagram post showed her at the dermatologist’s office with the caption, ‘My #skincancerisrealcancer,’ which essentially confirmed her medical condition.
As difficult as life had been for people with achondroplasia due to the myriad of health issues that came with it, Amber and Trent had always banded together and came out stronger for it. This was what they wanted to instill in their children and to not let anything stop them from living a full life.